The federal wildlife agency will re–evaluate the bird’s survival prospects this year. Listing it as endangered could have the same polarizing effect that the 1990s listing of the northern spotted owl had on public lands logging in the Pacific Northwest, experts worry.
If the species is found to be in critical danger, livestock and energy extraction might be severely restricted on more than 170 million acres of public lands in 11 states from North Dakota to Washington.
“The biggest fear of an [endangered] listing would be instead of 11 states and agriculture, energy and mining commissions all working to protect the bird, it would be down to half a dozen federal employees,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.
The greater sage grouse is a ground-nesting chicken with round wings and a flashy fan of distinctive pointy tail feathers. Birds can grow up to 30 inches long and can weigh up to 7 pounds.
Strutting males attract females during mating season by expanding balloon-like sacs on their chests and prancing in clearings called leks. The showoff birds make a whooping sound that carries across the prairie.
“It’s like hearing a wolf howl in the wild. There’s a sense of comfort to know that they’re there,” said Boise, Idaho-based nature writer Niels Sparre Nokkentved. “And [the sound] also makes me chuckle a bit.”
As federal agencies prepared to reassess the sage grouse’s situation, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a 2019 revision of sage grouse management plans in seven states. Conservation groups sued, arguing that new rules weakened or eliminated sage grouse protections in favor of oil and gas drilling.
The Trump administration last month appealed a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Idaho in favor of conservation groups, which successfully claimed that the federal agency didn’t correctly follow processes for public input and environmental assessments.
The shy birds avoid humans and require several different habitats at different life stages, but they mostly favor large, uninterrupted tracts of sagebrush, often in areas with an elevation between 4,000 feet and 9,000 feet.
Roads, fences and power lines, as well as the clearing of sagebrush for agriculture, energy extraction and development caused the birds to disappear from the landscape in Oregon, Washington, northern California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and North and South Dakota.
Some 16 million U.S. sage grouse existed 200 years ago. The population has dropped today to between 250,000 and 400,000 from 500,000 when Fish and Wildlife’s 2015 public land plans were put in place. A species variant, the Gunnison sage grouse, is down to fewer than 5,000 birds in Colorado and Utah.
In Wyoming, the first state to implement a sage grouse plan, and the state with the most of these birds, birth levels have dropped to below replacement rates, initial 2019 counts of hunter-harvested bird wings from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department show.
“We see ups and downs in sage grouse populations in a cycle,” Leslie Schreiber, the agency biologist, said in a statement. “So far, data shows there were 1.1 chicks per hen.” Chick survival rate must be at 1.2 chicks per hen to maintain population and 1.5 chicks to grow, Schreiber said.
The bird’s troubles also illustrate the disappearing and delicate sagebrush steppe ecosystem, which is also the home to about 350 other wildlife and plant species.
Starting in the 1930s, U.S. farmers, ranchers and developers cleared sagebrush from the land, even using defoliant chemicals to break up more than 200 million acres of uninterrupted “sagebrush sea” that once covered the northern West.
“The truth is no one thing is going to save the sage grouse,” David Dahlgren, assistant professor in Utah State University’s Wildland Resources Department told UPI in May. “What matters to sage grouse is they’re a landscape species, meaning that they need large intact landscapes of sagebrush habitat if they’re going to persist.”
Since the sage grouse crisis has been identified, states have adopted plans to bring back sagebrush. These include feeding sagebrush seeds to grazing cattle and using prison crews to plant new sagebrush seedlings after fires.
More than 80 million acres of private land with unfragmented sagebrush tracts has been protected with conservation easements paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Bozeman, Mont.-based Tim Griffiths of the Sage Grouse Initiative’s landscape initiatives team.
But even with those protections, sagebrush habitat has shrunk. In Nevada, 5 million acres of sagebrush ecosystem burned in invasive grass fires in the past three years.
“It’s thin, alluvial soil, in a high, dry desert, and once it’s disturbed, getting the chemistry back is quite a game,” the Audubon Society’s Rutledge said.
Going forward, it’s unclear whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider listing the greater sage grouse as an endangered species after the agency evaluates five years of state-managed plans.
“What we’re looking at is habitat condition,” said Jennifer Strickland, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Are the habitat conditions what the bird needs, and are we going to have those conditions going forward?
“Then we look at the best available science to assess the status of the species, and what the science shows us is what’s on the table [for an endangered listing].”
Added Audubon’s Rutledge: “I’d rather see [a potential endangered listing] used as a motivator to have the states support the wildlife, which is in their best interest, anyway. It’s the locals who have pulled together to try to do some things that work, and I’m hoping it’s not too late.”